March 11, 2015
Tiny grains of rock detected by the international Cassini spacecraft orbiting Saturn point to hydrothermal activity on the seafloor of its icy moon Enceladus.
The finding adds to the tantalising possibility that the moon could contain environments suitable for living organisms.
Understanding the interior structure of 500 km-diameter Enceladus has been a top priority of the Cassini mission since plumes of ice and water vapour were discovered jetting from fractures at the moon’s south pole in 2005.
Ice particles in the plumes were found to be rich in sodium salt, implying that the water has been in contact with rock, and subsequent measurements of the moon’s gravitational field revealed a 10 km deep subsurface ocean at the south pole, below a 30–40 km thick ice crust.
Now, following an extensive, four-year study of data from the spacecraft, combined with computer simulations and laboratory experiments, scientists have been able to gain deeper insights into the chemical reactions taking place on the floor at the base of Enceladus’s ocean.
Using Cassini’s Cosmic Dust Analyser, scientists have discovered a population of tiny dust grains, just 2–8 nm in radius, in orbit around Saturn. They are rich in silicon, marking them out from the water-ice particles that dominate in the planet’s environment, including in its famous ring system.
They believe that these silicon-rich grains originate on the seafloor of Enceladus, where hydrothermal processes are at work. On the seafloor, hot water at a temperature of at least 90 degrees Celsius dissolves minerals from the moon’s rocky interior. The origin of this energy is not well understood, but likely includes a combination of tidal heating as Enceladus orbits Saturn, radioactive decay in the core and chemical reactions.
image credit: NASA JPL-CalTech